Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Winter Conversations

Engelsberg manor, in the mid-afternoon sunlight.

After an unusually busy term and Oxford History admissions week, in a final gasp of academic activity before Christmas, I flew to Sweden for a seminar on ‘Declinism’ organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation. One of the hallmarks of the Foundation’s seminars is that they are often held in a late 17C manor house in the village of Engelsberg, 160km north of Stockholm. Engelsberg itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its preserved ironworks, a monument to the importance of iron ore mining in Swedish history. The aim of the seminars is to stimulate interdisciplinary debate in the Humanities – this month’s, on ‘Declinism’, was the third in a series which had begun with ‘Decadence’ and ‘Decay’.

            And so as part of a group of some ten speakers – from Mexico, the UK, the USA, Germany – we found ourselves crunching across hard frost with our suitcases, in air several degrees below freezing, towards a manor house decorated with candles, evergreen and traditional glazed stoves. We were taken into a room rigged up with television cameras, ready to film the seminar for broadcast by the Foundation. Throughout the day, we heard papers on how the notion of ‘decline’ did, or did not, play out in ancient Assyria, ancient Greek literature, in perceptions of the Ottoman or Aztec worlds, in 20C America or in modern debate on climate change. I spoke on the Jagiellonian dynasty, perceptions of its demise, and claims of its rebirth, in 16C Central Europe. The event, deep in rural Sweden in December, felt like a cross between a country-house party and a monastic-style retreat for academics.

            The discussions continued late into the night, and the interdisciplinary conversations in particular were memorable. We have various fora in the UK for talking to scholars in other Humanities (and/or social science) subjects, not least the dynamic TORCH here in Oxford. But sometimes I wonder if we are so careful to be polite to each other that we don’t say what we really think. Before Engelsberg, the closest I’d come to having very open interdisciplinary conversations (of the sort where you can look an esteemed colleague in the eye and say: ‘I just don’t understand why you do what you do’) was in the Somerville Medievalists group meetings, with my German & Italian literature colleagues. At Engelsberg, (in a smoke-filled room, with low lighting and lots of loud intellectual exchanges going on), I was able to have very frank conversations on whether it is possible to write history at all, on postmodernism, text and, indeed, truth. It is good to be challenged on the fundamentals of what you do as a scholar. I think there are some misperceptions of what historians do, or think they are doing, which suggests that there are things we could articulate better. I learnt at Engelsberg that the gaps between Humanities disciplines can be quite big, maybe bigger than we like to admit outside of a darkened room. But I also learnt that – however heated the discussions – even in the early hours of the morning they are tempered with genuine mutual academic respect and curiosity.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Open Days

Like a village fete?
Photo by Vieve Forward 

On September 18th, the flags and bunting will come out as Oxford University hosts the last of its 2015 Open Days. For many years, each college had its own schedule of Open Days, which did not necessarily coincide with one another. Now, Open Days are bigger, fewer in number and centrally co-ordinated, with departments and faculties welcoming visitors too. This makes for a more efficient visit for prospective students (and gridlock on Oxford’s roads and pavements).

            Exactly what a college tutor is expected to do on an Open Day varies. Somerville for a while assembled its tutors in a big hall, where we stood behind little tables, handing out leaflets about our subject to the passing crowds – a bit like a village fete. We now have a more congenial model, where visitors are able to visit tutors in their college rooms, see them in their natural habitat, and get some feel for the environment where tutorials take place. (Or a hastily tidied version of that environment.) Prospective students can drop in at any point over a two-hour period, and we sit and chat – for five, ten, fifteen minutes.

            So what do we talk about? I’m usually asked about the course: what options one can do in the first year, are they taught in college or not? I’m asked too about how the admissions system works, which involves taking a deep breath and explaining the different elements on which we assess a History application: GSCE marks, submitted written work, History Admissions Test, scores from 2 separate interviews (all of which we look at together, to form one big picture). I’m asked what would-be Oxford historians should be reading over their summer holidays, what in my opinion caused the English Reformation, or the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, or for my views on post-modernism. But most of all, I’m asked a wise and cunning question: as a tutor, what advice would I give an Oxford History applicant?

            That too involves a pause, and a deep breath. I say things such as: if you are applying for a joint school (e.g. History and subject x), be very sure that you passionately want to do both those subjects, and are genuinely gifted in them both – don’t do it if you simply can’t choose between them. If you are specifying a college in your application, it’s a really good idea to go to an Open Day there and talk to the tutors who will be teaching you – it’s nice for them to meet you, but more importantly it will give you a chance to see if these are human beings you can and want to work with over three years. If you are specifying a college on your application, do a little bit of research on it. And then I shake their hand, and say a sincere ‘good luck!’.

Often, I never see these bright and engaged interlocutors ever again. Sometimes, they return as Freshers a year later; some of them I remain in touch with for many years...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Professor Paul Langford

On returning to Oxford from holiday, I was very saddened indeed to receive an email from Lincoln College stating that Paul Langford, former rector and my undergraduate tutor had died. Paul Langford was a highly distinguished historian of eighteenth-century England, a Fellow of Lincoln College from 1969, and a Fellow of the British Academy, well known in particular for his book A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727-1783 (which I was spectacularly impressed, as a student, to find in paperback in airport bookshops).

            I first met Paul Langford on an exceptionally bitter winter evening in 1994, in his room in Lincoln College, for my undergraduate admissions interview. There was a ticking clock, an extraordinary panelled Oxford interior, and four imposing figures seated in a row, one of them smartly dressed, serious but friendly, whose leg tapped away in rhythm to my answers. I completely lost my thread half-way through one answer, and was seized with terror that all hopes of an Oxford place had gone. Paul Langford then smiled and said: ‘To be honest, I can’t remember my question either’, and the entire situation seemed much more human, and retrievable.

            There were many tutorials in that panelled room, with that same intimidating clock, reading out essays on eighteenth-century Europe. Paul Langford was a quiet but intense presence in a room: a tutor who was not afraid of silences in which you were made to sit and think. He was genuinely kind to his undergraduates: tactfully helping us to arrange entertainment in college for speakers we’d invited down from Westminster, treating us to a splendid post-Finals lunch at his home in Berkshire. Towards the end of my degree, Paul Langford talked about my plans to do research. I explained that I was interested in working on Polish-English ties in the 18C, or (more tentatively) on Renaissance Poland. He gave me then some of the best advice I’ve had, which I now often repeat to my own students: study what you are absolutely most passionate about. He seemed sure that, even at the very earliest stages of research planning, everyone knew deep down what that really was.

            I shall very much miss seeing Professor Langford walking through the streets of Oxford, carrying off his distinctive mixture of gravity and joviality, immaculately attired, often looking (to my mind) just a little bit like the eighteenth-century squires he wrote about. I shall miss the knowledge, which I and his fellow students had for so many years after leaving Lincoln, that whenever we walked down Turl Street, he was somewhere behind those walls, such an intrinsic part of the college’s life and identity. Paul Langford, like Vivian Green (also former History tutor and former rector), is a scholar who made a profound mark on both Lincoln College and on his own historical field. And, like a true Oxford tutor, Paul Langford touched the lives of generations of students in so many ways, that even the ablest historian would struggle adequately to record them.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

How to Vote

The Polish royal election of 1573, as imagined by Jan Matejko (d. 1893)
On UK Election Day (which on this occasion has been awaited for the unusually long span of five full years), what do our late medieval and Renaissance forbearers tell us about how to vote?

Although we think of it as a period of mighty monarchies, 15th and 16th Europe was in fact full of elections and voting. The hundreds of bishops in Latin Christendom, for example, were all elected by their cathedral chapters: the canons would hear a solemn Mass, gather in the chapter house and vote. If they were ‘inspired by the Holy Spirit’ (in practice meaning if the result had been negotiated or fixed in advance) the chapter would unanimously acclaim a single candidate. Alternatively, they could hold a ballot (‘per scrutinium’) or appoint a subcommittee to make the decision (‘per comprossimum’). Republics such as Florence or Venice, meanwhile, had a constant flow of elections to office, with elaborate voting procedures involving beans, silver balls, and giant urns.

The pope in Rome was of course elected, by cardinals who were locked in the Sistine Chapel, with the Botticelli frescos and their own make-shift beds, until they reached a majority verdict. Papal elections in the Renaissance were characterised by the electoral capitulation – a formal list of promises which the cardinals would make the successful candidate swear to deliver, before formally electing him. (Not being carved in stone or enshrined in legislation, pace the UK party leaders, these were always transgressed).

And even in monarchies, there were plentiful and often momentous elections. The kings of Poland, Hungary, Bohemia and Sweden were elected throughout the Renaissance period, as was the Holy Roman Emperor himself. A Polish royal election, for example, such as that of 1492, involved the 40 or so members of the royal council assembling at Piotrków castle with ample numbers of armed troops, ‘conferring’ for several weeks, and only when a successful candidate emerged as a result of those negotiations did the council proceed to a formal oral vote, in the castle Hall. Then there were fireworks, feasting in Kraków, and a lavish coronation.

What these varieties of 15C and 16C European elections have in common is a conviction that all the important issues had to be thoroughly negotiated, and agreed, by the key players before proceeding to a vote – the purpose of which was partly ceremonial, or symbolic. In that sense, the UK 2015 election campaign – which has been characterised by negotiations and posturing between possible allies, well in advance of the actual vote – has had something of a Renaissance echo to it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Research & Anthropology

Are we talking the same language?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel (1563).
           The Jagiellonians Project which I lead has an anthropological strand: asking how anthropologists’ work on kinship, family and ritual can help us better understand this 15th and 16th century royal house. Just last week, I found myself talking over lunch at Somerville College with Dr. Jane Dyson, comparing notes on marriage practice in remote 21stC Himalayan villages and among Renaissance princes.

Eighteen months in, however, the project is also having to engage with anthropology in a broader, more immediate sense. The lands once ruled by the Jagiellonians today make up some 13 different countries and national scholarships on the dynasty. The project itself operates in a British environment, with an international team. This means that the project is talking to a range of audiences, and operating within and across a number of quite different academic cultures.

            Universities and scholarship may look superficially similar across the world, and we might use the same terminologies, but these often conceal important differences. ‘Project’ is one such term, which can imply different things in different places. In the UK, a research project is typically a team of scholars employed to work full-time on a topic in a co-ordinated way, recruited through open competition; in other places, ‘project’ is a network, an umbrella which should properly group together all the leading experts in a given field. ‘Conference’ in some academic cultures is an event at which you speak, and pay a fee in order to cover the organisers’ costs; elsewhere, ‘conference’ is an event to which scholars, as a mark of honour, are invited to speak, all their expenses generously paid, and fine meals lavished upon them.

‘Scholarship’ itself can mean different things, depending on where in the modern world you are. In some places, a particular mark of scholarly excellence is the successful identification of new sources: new archival documents or visual artefacts. In other places, scholarly excellence instead lies in fresh interpretations and analyses of evidence, either old or new. This important difference reflects, I think, the different functions which history plays within different cultures today. My sense is that in some places the basic shape and themes of national history (and its place in national identity) are already widely agreed upon, and research simply fleshes these trajectories out further. By contrast, in places where a canonical narrative of the past (for whatever reason) is less central to present-day national identity, revisionism and the rewriting of old stories by historians is applauded.

To openly acknowledge these differences is not to make judgements about the relative merits of different academic cultures. An international project such as the Jagiellonians therefore needs to be attuned to anthropology, willing to decode cultural difference – ready to accept that some, or indeed much, of what we do will (inadvertently) be baffling or annoying to scholars elsewhere; and that, vice versa, there are reactions which we will struggle to understand. The important thing is to start talking more frankly about our different experiences and expectations; and to keep talking.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Dolphins in the Bodleian

After a long, busy autumn term of teaching and running a research project (hence the gap in blog posts, apologies), last week I finally ventured back into the Bodleian Library, and found a new exhibition in the entrance hall. Aldus Manutius:The Struggle and the Dream marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the pioneering Venetian Renaissance printer (c. 1450-1515), who created distinctive editions of classical texts treasured by humanist scholars across Europe, and in the process set a new standard in the printing of learned books. The exhibition is curated by my Somerville History colleague, Dr. Oren Margolis, with assistance from current Somerville History undergraduates Jennifer Allan, Anna Clark and Qaleeda Talib, whose own work on Aldus will be showcased at an event at the Bodleian in February.

At a time when academic publishing is again going through a major metamorphosis, and experiencing another technological revolution, it seems apt to reflect on the printer Aldus and his legacy. The Bodleian exhibition stresses that Aldus’ Venetian workshop gave the world the italic font: the display includes the first printed books in which it was seen. Probably few of us, when pressing Control I on our computers, know or think of the great copyright squabble which the discovery of printed italic triggered between Aldus and his punch-cutter, Francesco Griffo. The exhibition includes too a Roman denarius from 80AD, showing a dolphin and anchor, which Aldus adopted as his own device. Modern academic publishers must surely remain envious of the little surge of delight, the flash of excitement, the joy of possession, which the sight of Aldus’ dolphin logo seems to have instantly provoked in the learned 16C reader.

Aldus printed for the republic of letters, for those anywhere in Christendom who, at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, were serious about scholarly and beautiful books. So it was a particular pleasure for me to see in The Struggle and the Dream an Oxford copy of Aldus’ Erotemata, by Constantine Lascaris, a key text for those learning ancient Greek. I’ve been working for some years on Piotr Tomicki (d.1535), bishop of Kraków and a key advisor to the Polish Crown. In Kraków’s Jagiellonian Library, I have examined Tomicki’s own diligently, neatly annotated copy of Aldus’ Erotomata, which he had purchased as a student in Italy, very far from home, and kept throughout his life, even once he was a great statesman. Aldus’ volumes – whether in Venice, Kraków or Oxford - still have the ability to make people, now as in the sixteenth-century, feel they are holding in their hands very special books.